The Agony and the Ecstasy of Wonder Woman #204

Yesterday I bought a copy of the Wonder Woman #204 Facsimile Edition from DC Comics. “The Second Life of the Original Wonder Woman” was written & edited by Robert Kanigher and drawn by Don Heck, with possible inking by Dick Giordano. It was originally released 50 years ago this month, on November 7, 1972.

I had previously seen excerpts of Wonder Woman #204 online and read some commentary about it. I featured a couple of panels from it in my review of the recent Nubia: Queen of the Amazons miniseries. But this was the first time I’ve had the opportunity to read this story in it’s entirety. And I have to say, this is one of the most insane comic books I have ever read.

I wish Alan Stewart had bought this issue when it had come out, because it would have made one heck of an installment of his blog Attack of the 50 Year Old Comic Books! (Alan did do a write-up on Wonder Woman #202 a few months ago, so you can read that.) Therefore I figured I might as well offer up my own commentary here on this blog.

Wonder Woman #204 sees the title character reacquire her iconic costume & superpowers after the four year “Diana Prince” direction overseen by Denny O’Neil & Mike Sekowsky that had begun back in issue #178, cover-dated Sept-Oct 1968. And, as changes in creative directions can go, “The Second Life of the Original Wonder Woman” is about as sudden & drastic as you can possibly get.

Robert Kanigher is a creator who has simultaneously been praised and reviled. His work on DC’s war titles is frequently lauded as classic, as is his collaboration with the incredible Joe Kubert on the Ragman character. In contrast, Kanigher’s two decade long run writing & editing Wonder Woman from 1947 to 1967 is often regarded as at best mediocre, at worst downright awful. Kanigher himself apparently was not a pleasant individual to know.

The opening sequence to Wonder Woman #204 really demonstrates Kanigher at his most cruel & petty, as he has a very thinly veiled stand-in for fellow DC editor Dorothy Woolfolk murdered as part of a horrific shooting spree by a deranged sniper. This bloodbath also results in the sudden, brutal death Diana’s mentor I Ching and causes her to suffer complete amnesia, resulting in the erstwhile Amazon instinctively returning to Paradise Island, thereby managing to completely sweep aside the status quo from the previous four years in just a few short pages.

Around this time journalist and feminist Gloria Steinem had been advocating DC to restore Wonder Woman’s costume & powers. It’s been suggested that DC editorial & management regarded Steinem as a convenient excuse to hit the reset button as they were apparently becoming apprehensive with the increasingly political direction of the series, with the new writer, acclaimed science fiction novelist Samuel R. Delaney, planning to address the abortion controversy in an upcoming story. Whatever the actual case, Delaney only got to write two issues of Wonder Woman, #202 and #203, before Kanigher returned to the series.

Like, seriously, WTF DC Comics?!?

Mind you, even if Delaney had been able to remain on Wonder Woman and take the book in the direction he wanted, for all we know the actual results might have been cringeworthy. One need only look at #203 with its “Special! Women’s Lib Issue” blurb splashed atop a cover drawn by Dick Giordano of a bound & gagged young woman with her breasts thrust out provocatively to realize that even the more progressive voices at DC in the early 1970s could still be horrifically tone deaf.

That said, bringing Kanigher back to Wonder Woman after a four year absence is a head-scratcher. I really have to puzzle at what resulted in him becoming writer & editor again. The entire reason why the whole non-powered, white jumpsuit Diana Prince direction had come about in the first place was to try to save the series from cancellation after 20 years of increasingly mediocre stories by Kanigher.

I myself read a number of the Silver Age Wonder Woman stories Kanigher did with the art team of Ross Andru & Mike Esposito when they were reprinted in the first Showcase Presents: Wonder Woman collection published in 2007, and I found them to be utterly bland & instantly forgettable. (Say what you will about utterly dysfunctional Superman stories edited by Mort Weisinger during the same two-decade period, at least those were memorably bizarre.) So why give the book back to the guy who nearly tanked it in the first place?

Reportedly Dorothy Woolfolk, one of the very few female professionals working in mainstream comic books half a century ago, was supposed to be the new, permanent editor of the Wonder Woman series, a decision that would have undoubtedly pleased Steinem. But whatever happened at DC resulted in Woolfolk only editing issues #197 and #198. Which makes the opening page of #204 even more egregious, as it really comes across like a huge middle finger by Kanigher to Woolfolk at his having snatched away her job.

Okay, Kanigher had been previously been harshly mocked in the pages of Wonder Woman #188 as the cross-dressing pickpocket “Creepy Caniguh” but that was all on Mike Seknowsky, who wrote, penciled & edited that issue. So it feels like Kanigher was taking out his ire on the only woman in the room when he had “Dottie Cottonman” murdered in #204.

Of course, all these decades later, with nearly everyone involved having subsequently passed on, there’s no way to know what actually occurred behind the scenes.

Thankfully Kanigher’s second stint as writer & editor on Wonder Woman was much shorter than his first, coming to an end after a mere eight issues with #211.

Putting all of this aside, the reason for the publication of this Facsimile Edition is that it’s the first appearance of Diana’s long lost sister Nubia. But despite her appearance on the cover she almost feels like an afterthought in Kanigher’s brutal deck-clearing exercise. Nubia did feature more prominently in the next two issues, though, so I guess it was a decent set-up for the character’s story.

On the plus side, artist Don Heck did very solid work on this story. Heck is, without a doubt, an incredibly underrated artist. Superheroes really were not his forte, and so the more that genre dominated the medium the more he unfortunately found himself having to work on material that did not suit his artistic strengths.

Having said that, Wonder Woman was probably a better fit for Heck than almost any other ongoing series published by either DC or Marvel in the 1970s. Heck always did draw very attractive women (he did incredible work on romance comics) so Wonder Woman was definitely a good book to assign to him.

Heck’s cover for issue is #204 is very dramatic. He especially outdid himself in Diana’s underwater battle with the shark, the flashback sequence in this story featuring the origins of the Amazons and Diana, and with the brief duel between Diana and Nubia. All the classical Greek and mythological material was such a great fit for his artwork.

Heck’s art was the main reason why I purchased this Facsimile Edition. His work on this issue almost sort of manages to redeem the story, because no matter how tacky Kanigher’s writing gets, Heck consistently delivers a professional job.

Heck had already drawn Wonder Woman #199 a few months earlier, and he then drew the next two issues after this one. He did the occasional fill-in issue for the series during the late 1970s and early 1980s before becoming the regular Wonder Woman penciler from 1983 to 1985, paired with writer Dan Mishkin. During that three year period Heck produced, if not especially dynamic art, then at least good, solid work that effectively told the story. The work by Mishkin & Heck immediately before the justly acclaimed post-Crisis revamp of Wonder Woman by George Perez is, I think, underrated, and I hope one of these days it gets reprinted.

I find the circumstances in which Wonder Woman #204 was produced to be far more intriguing than the actual issue. It’s certainly a good reminder that the American comic book industry has often been beset by clashing egos, unprofessional behavior and contradictory agendas. I love the medium of comic books, but the business of it can be cutthroat as all hell!

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2 thoughts on “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Wonder Woman #204”

  1. Other than its historical significance re: the debut of Nubia, the opportunity to blog about this bonkers issue ist the only reason I can think of to regret not spending 20 cents on it half a century ago. 🙂 Thanks for picking up the slack, Ben!

    Liked by 1 person

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